Pete the Cat written by Eirc Litwin and illustrated by James Dean

Pete the Cat, written by Eric Litwin and illustrated by the artist James Dean brings together two artists from different genres to create a really cool kid's book!  Eric Litwin, aka Mr Eric, is a multi-intrument musician and singer and creator of The Learning Groove, a child and parent music class.  James Dean and his creation, Pete, reminds me a bit of a cross between Stephen Huneck's Sally the Lab and George Rodrigue's Blue Dog.  Pete is one cool cat who really gets around.  I couldn't resist including some of Dean's artwork featuring Pete, especially his visits with The Masters, so be sure to check them out at the bottom of this review.

A great article by Helen Oliviera reveals how Litwin and Dean came together on a street corner in Atlanta, where both are based.  Pete the Cat was already a local celebrity and Litwin deicded to write a song and story about him, which he emailed to Dean after they bumped into each other.  Before Litwin came along, Pete the Cat had never worn shoes and I definitely think the high tops are a great addition!  With Litwin's background in children's music and Dean's bright colors and childlike painting style, there is no way this book could not be a success - and it is!  The two self-published the book in their home town and it was picked up by HarperCollins.

Pete's story is a simple one that ends with a great message.  I'll give you a brief synopsis, but I strongly suggest you watch the video of Mr Eric singing the song to (and with) a room full of kids and parents while Mr Dean turns the pages of the book.  Also, when you watch the video you will know how to sing the song!

Pete the Cat has some new white shoes and sings this song, "I love my white shoes, I love my white shoes."  As he is walking along, he steps in something - a big pile of strawberries! - that turns his shoes.... RED.  The pacing of the book is great because it gives keeps kids on the edge of their seats, excited to guess what color Pete's shoes turn and happy to sing his song.  Dirty shoes don't get Pete down, though.  He goes on to sing, "I love my red shoes, I love my red shoes."  This goes on for a few more colors until Pete steps in water and his shoes turn white again, but now they are WET.  Does this get Pete down?  Goodness no!  Pete has a new song!  "I love my wet shoes, I love my wet shoes."  And, as the book says, the moral of this story is, "No matter what you step in, keep walking along and singing your song 'cause it's all good!"

"Pete" MondrianEscher PeteIrises

I wish I had more pictures from the book to share more of James Dean's amazing artwork with you.  But, there is plenty in the video clip and I had added some of Dean's paintings of Pete with The Masters.  For those of you who really love Pete the Cat, you can buy prints from Dean's site AND you can also enter the monthly Win a Pete Print contest Dean hosts!  Also, there is a super cute doll from MerryMakers, Inc, the BEST company when it comes to creating dolls and toys from the best kid's books out there - new and classics.

Pete the Cat Doll

IrisesCatdinsky"Pete" MondrianKiss Pete

There Are No Cats in this Book written and illustrated by Viviane Schwarz

Timothy and the Strong Pajamas by Viviane Schwarz: Book Cover
Viviane Schwarz is the author and illustrator of one of my all-time favorite picture books, Timothy and the Strong Pajamas, a tale about a pair of beloved ripped pajamas and some special repairs that mom makes on them.  With her cats books, we get a bit more play and a little less text, but a big dose of creativity and paper engineering in between the covers.  While their illustrative style is different, Schwarz's books remind me of the wonderful Emily Gravett's works, espeically Meerkat Mail and Spells.

With her cats books, Schwarz's cats talk to the reader.  Really, I could go on, but it would be much better if you watch this video of There are Cats in This Book being read out loud.

In There are No Cats in This Book, our friends the cats are preparing for a trip to see the world, but they aren't quite sure just HOW to get out of the book.  They try jumping out, which results in a great pop-up page.  They try wishing themselves out and it works!  They spread shows two blank pages with a small postcard from the cats glued to one page.  When they return, they have brought friends with them....


Little Owl Lost written and illustrated by Chris Haughton

The story that Chris Haughton brings us with his book Little Owl Lost is not a new one. However, the pace of the story and the color palette that he uses to illustrate this story are, and I think that both will appeal to parents and little listeners.

Little Owl and mom are napping one day when... Uh oh! A tearful Little Owl meets up with Squirrel, who ask a few questions before trying to help.  What does mommy look like? Little Owl answers, "My mommy is VERY BIG. Like THIS," and holds his wings far apart.

Squirrel exclaims, "Yes!  Yes!  I know!  I know!" and takes Little Owl to... a bear. This goes on for a few more misunderstandings until Frog steps in and takes Little Owl to his mommy, who has been looking everywhere for him. Reunited, Mommy invites Squirrel and Frog back to the nest for cookies and tea where Little Owl nods off again...

I realize that the colors used are not typical for a children's picture book, but I think that they are what makes this story all the more appealing.  So few books stand out on the shelves anymore - Little Owl Lost definitely deserves your attention!

Penguin written and illustrated by Polly Dunbar

Polly Dunbar's Tilly and Friends series of books by  made it onto my list of Best Picture Books of 2009.  She is also the author and illustrator of some wonderful stand alone titles like Dog Blue, Shoe Baby, Flyaway Katie and Penguin.

At that time, her adorable book Dog Blue had just come out in paperback.  Now, I am happy to report that her latest book, Penguin, is also now available in paperback!  In Dog Blue, a little boy who loves the color blue and dearly wants a dog imagines a blue dog.  When the real thing comes along (and is not blue) Bertie has to alter his way of thinking, but just a little bit, to make room for this new dog.  In Penguin, Ben is given a gift, a penguin who will not play the way Ben wants him to.  Ben does everything he can to get Penguin to talk to him, including funny faces, dizzy dances and a trip to the moon on a rocket, but Penguin is not talking.  Frustrated, Ben conjures up a big blue lion and tries to feed Penguin to him.  The lion wants nothing to do with Penguin, but when Ben throws a final tantrum the lion eats Ben for being too noisy.  For this, Penguin bites the lion on the nose, hard. When the lion says, "Ow," Ben pops out!  The final line of the book is, "and Penguin said . . . everything!"

The illustration for the page in which Penguin says everything is superb!  There is a huge word bubble and it is filled with the images of everything that has passed between Ben and Penguin in a style of illustration slightly different from the rest of the book - more childish and with a bit of collage.  As I read this book out loud to my son (and tried to understand it with my adult brain) I decided to sit back, read and observe his reactions.  I realized that this book is ALL about imagination and how kid's see the world, which, despite being a parent three times over, I am largely out of touch with.  For a few minutes, I felt like I was back in a world where I could imagine anything, and I got a glimpse of how my son sees his world - and for that I am grateful! 

There is a fabulous interview with Polly Dunbar over at the always amazing blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, from which I learned that she and her best friend from college, Katherine Morton, have a puppet company called Long Nose Puppets.  Together, the two have turned some of Polly's books, including Shoe Baby and Penguin, into plays!  Sadly, Shoe Baby is not in print here anymore, but maybe the excellent publisher Candlewick, who has printed Dog Blue and Penguin, will re-issue it... Below are a few fun pictures from Shoe Baby, the book and show!




Mr Elephanter written and illustrated by Lark Pien

With Mr Elephanter, Lark Pien has written and illustrated one of the sweetest, gentlest (in both writing tone and color palette) books I have read in a while.  Like Polly Dunbar's gently colorful books for the under four crowd, Pien's book celebrates the joys of being little.  As Pien says in the jacket flap, "Whether you are taller than a tree or small enough to fit in the palm of a hand - or any size in between - you have the capacity to care."  This ethos is evidenced in every single page of Mr Elephanter. Mr Elephanter arrives with a smile every morning at the Elephantery to "look after the young and peppy elephanties.  With tootles and trumpet, they greet Mr Elephanter  at the door.  There are hugs and hellos all around."  

Mr Elephanter makes his three adorable charges a batch of banana pancakes.  After eating they head out to the pool to "paddle and splash and show off their tricks."  There is an interesting assortment of animals and humans in every picture.  I especially like the giraffes doing tai-chi.  Mr Elephanter rinses an (tries) to dry off the elephanties, who gleefully run away saying, "fwee!" and are VERY reminiscent of many a post-bath toddler who likes to dry off by running naked through the house.

There is a visit to the park where Mr Elephanter runs into an old friend, a grown elephant who was in Mr Elephanter's care as a little elephantie.  The two talk for a long time and the effects of Mr Elephanter's love and care are obvious.  The elephanties return to the Elephantery for a nap and, when they misbehave, a time out.  They play some games, do some dances and have more fun until the sun sets and it is time for Mr Elephanter to go home.  With hugs and good-byes, the little elephanties watch Mr Elephanter as he heads for home "under the starry sky."

This book is so short, I can't believe I wrote so much about it!  It is just so adorable and unique and wonderful that I want you all to run out and buy it!

Lark Pien is also the author and illustrator of the comic LONG TAIL KITTY!

Orlando on Thursday written and illustrated by Emma Magenta

I really, really like the idea of a picture book that shows a (very young) child's day in a realistic way.  I think it is important for children to see their days, their lives depicted in important ways.  One of my absolute (out of print) favorites is Janet and Alan Ahlberg's The Baby's Catalog, inspired by their infant daughter's love of the catalogues that came in mail.  Emily Jenkin's (Toys Go Out) wonderful What Happens on Wednesdays, illustrated by Lauren Castillo.

What happens on Wednesdays is a lot like what happens on Thursdays for Orlando.  Mom goes off and Dad takes over.  It is so wonderful to see picture books depicting the shared parenting that, I think, is so common these days.  In all the families I have known over past 17+ years (mine included), Dad has taken the kids on his day off while Mom, wether she works or not, gets some alone time, too.  

Orlando narrates his story, telling us, "Thursday is the day Mami has to be busy in town all day.  I feel sad.  I don't like when she's gone all day.  Then I remember that Thursday is the day that Papi stays home with me.  I start to feel a little bit better."

Orlando and Papi play at home for a while, then head out to have an adventure.  Another magnificent thing about children spending time alone, individually with each parent, is the opportunity to benefit from the various interests that mom and dad each have.  I am not a nature gal by any stretch, but my husband is an Eagle Scout who loves taking the kids traipsing through creeks and hiking up mountains, which is great by me!  Papi bathes and feeds Orlando and gets him ready for bed, which is when Mami comes home!  They tuck him into bed and "read me funny stories with special sound effects."  Then, Orlando falls asleep happy because, "the best part of Thursdays is when Papi, Mami and me are all home together!"

Emma Magenta does a great job of capturing the perspective of a three or four year old while at the same time throwing in some of the complexities (that can sometimes spark tantrums) like the fact that Mami makes a different lunch than Papi.  Orlando experiences his emotions, his sadness and happiness, and ends up just where he (and listeners) want to be - between his parents.  The scribbly, collage-y illustrations might throw off mom and dad, but I guarantee you that toddlers will tune into them right away.  This book is PERFECT for kids between the ages of 3 and 5!

Emma Magenta has also illustrated a book by fellow Aussie (and famous, award winning actor, singer and new mom) Toni Colette!  However, I don't think Planet Yawn is available in the states just yet...


There's Going to Be a Baby written by John Burningham and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury

Part One: A Brief History of 
John Burningham & Helen Oxenbury

John Burningham. Helen Oxenbury. They are the British equivalents of say, Maurice Sendak and Marla Frazee. Except roughly the same age. And married. For decades. Burningham and Oxenbury are royalty in the world of children's picture books in the UK. Burningham won the Kate Greenaway Medal (the British Caldecott) in 1963 for his book Borka: The Adventures of a Goose with No Feathers. The next year, he and Oxenbury married. Her first book was published in 1969. If you are American, you are probably more familiar with Oxenbury's illustrations, especially in We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rose. The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivisas, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox and her own book, It's My Birthday are among my favorites. However, you may not know that Oxenbury illustrated a very charming edition of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass in 1999, winning her a third Kate Greenaway Medal. 

I have not come across another illustrator - besides Marla Frazee, who is relatively new to picture books in terms of Oxenbury's career - who captures the essence of babies on the page with such gentleness, humor, grace and beauty. Oxenbury's color palette is a peaceful one, her babies (mostly) cheerful. She can even make a baby with a runny nose look charming (see Ten Little Fingers.)

John Burningham has had less of a shelf presence in the States, although his work is often written of with admiration. I think I first came across his books years ago at my local library. Burnignham's work is often a combination of drawing, painting, and collage. In a superb interview from 2009, Burningham talks about his approach to writing and illustrating picture books, over 50 now, and the appetites of his young readers. Writing for the Telegraph, Nicolette Jones notes that: 

although his work is underpinned by liberal values, Burningham is not didactic. 'As soon as you start to deliberately put the messages across, it's like a Seventh Day Adventist on the doorstep... you realise you are being got at.' His guiding principle is different: 'The 11th Commandment should have been, "Thou Shalt Not Bore."' He deplores what he calls a 'party food approach' to books for children: the belief that 'lots of colours and pretty pictures will do when there's no content. Children get very quickly bored. Colour means absolutely nothing unless it is used to some effect.'

Burningham's books definitely do not bore, texturally or visually. Would You Rather . . . is pure brilliance. Burningham offers readers options like, "Would you rather . . . an elephant drank your bath water, and eagle stole your dinner, a pig tried on your clothes or a hippo slept in your bed?" Or, "Would you rather your Dad dance at school or your mom make a fuss in a cafe?" In his slightly wicked and subtly subversive way, Burningham also gives readers the chance to choose between eating spider stew, tasting slug dumplings, staying all night in a creepy house for $50 and being sat on by a rhinoceros. Another favorite of mine, Hey, Get Off Our Train, finds a boy, his toy train and his pajama case dog imagining an epic train ride during which many different animals hop aboard, are told off, and then given a reprieve when the boy and dog learn of their plights, which usually involve a loss of habitat due to human encroachment. In all of his books (and I haven't even mentioned his popular Mr. Gumpy - NOT Grumpy books - Burningham deftly employs his imagination and exercises the imaginations of his readers with his words and pictures.

Part Two: The Book

So, drumroll, please . . . . . . . . . the FIRST EVER COLLABORATION BETWEEN TWO GREATS FROM THE WORLD OF CHILDREN'S LITERATURE - There's Going to Be a Baby written by John Burningham and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury! Because of Oxenbury's way with babies and Burningham's ability to think like a child (and NOT what most adults think is thinking like a child . . . ) I cannot think of two people better poised to write a book about a child's attempts to cope with the very abstract news that there's going to be a baby.


It was hard not to include every single gorgeous picture from this book, which is illustrated in two styles. The text walks readers through the six or so months between between the time that a mother (and it is only the mother we see in this book, which makes sense - for toddlers, mother, no matter how excellent a parent the other person is, is the whole world - and this book reflects this perspective) tells her son about the baby and the baby arrives. Over the course of the book and the months that pass, mother and son talk about the baby, wondering what he might be when he grows up, the mother's words in pale blue and the boy's in dark blue. The mother's ideas prompt the boy to imagine the baby doing various jobs, and Oxenbury's illustration style takes on a comical, cartoonish style fir these imaginings.

Imagining the baby trying to do adult tasks and making a mess of things works as a way for the boy to cope with his anxious or negative feelings about the arrival of a sibling. When I was a bookseller, I was constantly surprised by how FEW books there are that really address the arrival of a new sibling and the anxieties it stirs up. There aren't even as many books on the shelf about new siblings in general as you would think. A book like There's Going to Be a Baby is desperately needed, both for the realistic, thoughtful way it addresses a new baby and for the descriptive, but simple illustrations that tell the story as well.

By the time the baby arrives, the abstract is made concrete - almost - and the boy is genuinely please about his new sibling. On the bus to the hospital with his grandfather the two talk. "Maybe it will be Susan or Peter. Maybe it will be good at cooking and it will sail on the seven seas and work in the garden or the zoo or the bank," the boy says. In the final words of the book, as they are walking towards the mother's hospital room, the boy says, "Grandad, the baby will be our baby. We're going to love the baby, aren't we?"

Maybe it takes a combined 75+ years of children's book writing and illustrating experience before you can create a book as wonderfully, simply beautiful as There's Going to Be a Baby - even the title of the book embodies all these qualities. Whatever the reason, there has never been another book like this and I am so glad it is finally here!